It looks like we might finally have found a Yamaha track. After Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Brno, Silverstone, all places which were supposed to favor the Yamaha, but where a Honda won, Misano looks like it could be the place where the reign of Big Red comes to an end. Jorge Lorenzo took his first pole since Motegi last year, Valentino Rossi got on the front row for the first time since Phillip Island last year, and Marc Marquez was off the front row for the first time since Barcelona, 2013. In fact, this is the first time that a Repsol Honda has been missing from the front row of the grid since Valencia 2010. That is a very long time indeed.
Jorge Lorenzo's pole nearly didn't happen. In the first sector of the lap – the tight section through the first five corners – Lorenzo made a couple of mistakes which he feared had cost him a couple of tenths. He thought about pulling in and abandoning the lap, giving it one more shot with a fresh tire if he could change it fast enough. He rejected that idea, then went on to post what he described as an 'unbelievable lap'. His first fast lap had been trumped by Andrea Dovizioso, the Ducati man making clever use of Lorenzo's slipstream. But that first lap had made the Movistar Yamaha rider realize that he was not using the ideal lines. It helped make sure his second exit counted.
While Lorenzo aced qualifying, Valentino Rossi laid down a withering pace in FP4. Fast out of the gate, the Italian's race pace was mid 1'34s in his first run, then low 1'34s in his second. More importantly, his crew made a change to the bike after his first run, which made a big improvement, and allowed him to drop his pace. Rossi described FP4 as 'a great practice', and praised the work his team had done on the bike. "We started well, the bike was good, but we improve a lot," Rossi said.
Qualifying on the front row is a big deal for Rossi. The Italian has struggled with the new qualifying format, finding it hard to push straight out of the pits, something which his rivals have been able to do. Even a second row start has proved tricky, as is evident from his standings in the BMW M Award, the MotoGP qualifying competition. He may be third in the overal championship, but in qualifying, he is down in sixth, 172 points down on the leader Marc Marquez. He has Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Dovizioso ahead of him in the M Award standings, while Stefan Bradl is just 2 points behind. Qualifying is just not Rossi's forte at the moment.
But he has the air of a winner around him at Misano. He looks committed, he is riding superbly, and he has the hand prints of his team (and the lip prints of his girlfriend and mother, and the paw prints of his dogs) on his helmet, their hands all helping to propel him forward. Rossi's main target this season was to win a race, he told the pre-event press conference on Thursday. From his demeanor, the nine-time world champion has the scent of MotoGP victory number 81 in his nostrils. Rossi is looking like a winner once again. For the first time in many races, I am finding it hard to bet against him.
Though he exudes confidence, Rossi sounded a note of caution in the press conference. "MotoGP is day-by-day, not race-by-race," he said, meaning that things can change very quickly in the premier class. That much was obvious from the difference with Friday, when both Rossi and Lorenzo struggled in the pouring rain at Misano. On Saturday, with sunny skies, decent temperatures and a dry track, it was the turn of the Hondas to have difficulty. Marquez struggled with confidence in the front end, Pedrosa suffered with a lack of traction, after the pair had been at the front in the wet on Friday. It could all change again after Sunday warm up, Rossi warned. "You never know with Marc, he is a b*****d!" Rossi laughed. "For sure he will try tomorrow more than 100%." Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg concurred, noting that Marquez always seemed prepared to risk that little bit extra take a win. But, Zeelenberg said, both Rossi and Lorenzo had that same motivation here at Misano, promising a genuine thriller of a race.
For the two Hondas, it will come down to the start. Misano is a tough track to pass at. There are a few places where you can get past on the brakes, but if you do, you sacrifice corner exit. You may get ahead going into the corner, but ensuring you stay there is very difficult indeed, as races in years past have shown. Turn 1, Turn 8 (official count, though riders will tell you it's Turn 7, not counting the fast kink along the back straight opposite the paddock), as well as Turns 9 and 10, and the final corner at Turn 16, all offer opportunities on the brakes. The trouble is that outbraking the rider ahead of you puts you wide on the exit, with no drive.
Dani Pedrosa made no secret of his plans. A good start was important, but the quick run into the first corner made it hard to make up too many places. "You don't have a lot of room to get a perfect start," Pedrosa told the media. The goal, then, was to latch on to the leaders on the first lap. "You have to catch the train at the start," was Pedrosa's poetic description of his task for Sunday.
That will be Marc Marquez' goal too, but there are real doubts that he can find the pace to run with the Yamahas. Marquez' problems were illustrated that he spent some of the precious fifteen minutes of qualifying testing set up, and chasing race pace. It didn't help much, he was still not happy with the front end of this Repsol Honda. He can do a single fast lap, but long runs were simply not comfortable. If Marquez cannot find something in warm up, he will find himself in trouble.
Adding to the problems of the Hondas is Andrea Iannone. Both Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso were fast during qualifying, Iannone getting as far as the front row with the second fastest time. Both Ducatis benefited from having tested here after Brno, meaning they had a feeling for the track and a baseline set up, despite the track condition being totally different from a couple of weeks ago. The problem both men have is in tire choice. It wasn't warm enough for the Ducatis to switch to the medium tire, yet there are doubts that the soft tire will last the race. Iannone tried it, but the drop in the tire was too much after the first five or six laps, though the pace before that is excellent.
Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa's worst fear is that Iannone, and maybe even Dovizioso, get a good start and stick themselves between the Yamahas and the Hondas. The Hondas could get stuck behind Iannone for five laps or more, by which time Lorenzo and Rossi could well have pulled a gap.
The one Ducati which was not anywhere near the front was Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman was not fast enough in FP3 to make it straight through to Q2, but looked to have the pace to go through on merit in Q1. Crutchlow topped the timesheet after his first run, but was forced to abort his second, after an error message flashed up on his dashboard and he had to retire back to the pits. The problem turned out to be a faulty wheel sensor, but with so little time left in qualifying, his crew did not have the time to track down the problem. Crutchlow felt he could have taken another 0.8 seconds off his best time, putting him around a 1'33.8. That would have seen him safely through to Q2, and fighting for the third row. Crutchlow was careful to avoid assigning blame other than to himself, saying that it was his fault for not getting straight through to Q2, but you could sense the frustration simmering beneath the surface. Crutchlow has suffered a whole host of technical problems this season, which is not doing any good for his confidence in the bike. As one internet wag put it, Crutchlow is having a Ben Spies of a season.
The MotoGP race is not the only one which looks like turning into a battle between teammates. The Rossi-Lorenzo clash could be preceded by a clash between the two Marc VDS riders in Moto2. Mika Kallio took pole, dealing a sensitive blow to Tito Rabat, but there is nothing to choose between the two men, or indeed the top five. Kallio, Rabat, Maverick Viñales, Tom Luthi and Dominique Aegerter are all within two tenths of each other, promising a bitter fight on Sunday.
The battle between Kallio and Rabat could be a very hard one indeed. Both men are determined to take the title, and though Rabat leads the championship, Kallio is confident that he can hold the upper hand in the final races. Though the Moto2 races have not been classic, the title fight is both close and intense. Rabat leads by 17 points, but Kallio is nowhere near capitulation. The Marc VDS Racing team could find themselves in the embarrassing position of having kept Rabat and allowing Kallio to leave, and Kallio taking the number 1 plate off to a rival team.
For Kallio looks likely to find another slot in Moto2 for next year. The 32-year-old Finn had options to go to MotoGP, but not on a competitive bike, and possibly being forced to bring a salary. Kallio is very much Grand Prix's forgotten man, never getting the respect he deserves at contract time. His record speaks for itself: 47 Grand Prix podiums in all classes, 16 wins, and 18 poles. Kallio is plenty fast, and a solid, reliable rider. If you want a rider who you know will stay on the bike and score good points, then Kallio is your man. Too many teams seem to overlook him, however. Why is something of a mystery.
The Moto3 race looks like being, well, a Moto3 race. Jack Miller starts from pole, and has some new-found confidence now that he has switched back to an old frame from earlier this year. He can once again make time up on the brakes, something he had been missing in the last few races. Miller's aim is to prise open the gap between himself and the Estrella Galicias once again, now that Alex Marquez and Alex Rins have closed it down over the past few races.
Though Miller is confident, it certainly won't be easy. He would not be able to just pull away from the front, Miller said in the press conference. The race is likely to end up like most Moto3 contests have this year: with a large group battling for victory. Miller is hoping to use the extra braking stability to make the difference, but the difference may have to wait until the last lap. That's where Miller had struggled in recent races, but with brakes he can use, he could be back in the game on Sunday.
The forecast for Sunday? Good weather, warmer than Saturday and sunny. A close Moto3 race as appetizer. A hard fought Moto2 race as an intermezzo. And a close fight with the strong possibility of a local winner in MotoGP. All in all, an excellent day's racing in prospect at Misano.